Monday, 20 June 2011

Father and Son: Tim Buckley, Jeff Buckley and Me

So, one of the things I remember about meeting people at university who weren't really into music was that they all absolutely fucking loved Jeff Buckley's version of Hallelujah. Even more so after it was on that episode of the O.C., you got all these geography students and trainee primary school teachers emoting to it whenever it came on wherever you were. If this were Rob's history in High Fidelity, essentially it's the new Baby I Love Your Way, or something.

That's a bit unfair on poor deceased Jeff, and I'll happily admit his version of Hallelujah is bloody good. It's ridiculously over-the-top on the melodrama, but when you've got a voice like that, you can pretty much get away with it. Besides which, if you've ever seen Leonard Cohen's performance of it on French-language TV, you'll wonder how Jeff pulled that much heartbreak out of it.

Nonetheless, I went through uni sporadically enjoying Jeff Buckley, especially Lover, You Should've Come Over and Grace, for what it's worth (always skipped Lilac Wine, obviously). And yeah, Grace is still a good album, for all that it's quite rightly criticised as being overindulgent it shows someone not afraid to show off their numerous musical talents, and while it's gained some extra fame (infamy?) since his death, I don't really think it's undeserved at all.

But one day I discovered Tim Buckley. Now, I knew Jeff had a vaguely famous Dad to some degree, but he was just one of those names to me at that some point – someone I'd heard of but never bothered to engage with. At that time, he'd sit alongside John Martyn, Richard Thompson, Neil Young...y'know, the sort of people who shouldn't be gaps in your, er, listening history. In any case, an opportunistic young me picked up a whole bunch of Tim Buckley CDs from someone on a messageboard (who I'd go on to have a feud of sort with) for next to nothing, just on impulse. And they're a mixed bunch. His last album, Look at the Fool, for instance, sounds like what it is, a man coming to the end of his tether both creatively and technically (his voice! His poor voice.)

So now I've badmouthed him, I'm going to build him up to high heaven. For those that don't know, Tim Buckley died in 1975 at the age 28 as a result of doing what can only be described as a large amount of heroin, having released nine albums. Yeah, nine! They really worked them hard in those days. His first album was only in 1966, and it's a self-titled, vaguely psychedelic, obviously Beatles-influenced poppy album. Considering he'd essentially go on first to be a folk-rock staple and then a slightly misguided step towards what was described as “sex funk”, the dude definitely knew a genre or two.

It's for his folk-rock and free-jazz stuff that he's best known. Starsailor – from his free-jazz leanings – is his most highly-regarded album, and yes, that is where there early 00s English yawn-core band got their name from, but my favourite is, of all things, a not-very-well-known live album from his folk-rock days, Dream Letter: Live in London.

It's a two disc affair, recorded at Buckley's first ever performance in England (or outside North America at all, really). It's a stripped back affair, with voice, guitar, vibes and bass, and he rattles through twenty songs (over 16 tracks) with that wonderfully soulful voice, sympathetically backed by his band; songs passing through 7 or 8 minutes sometimes without ever seeming like it. Supposedly – though I know this from Wiki-browsing – these performances, with more improvisation and less of a focus on being the “folk-rock poster boy” he apparently was, alienated audiences a bit. Well, more fool them, it's totally hypnotic. Phantasmagoria in Two gets a cheer, and deservedly so, though not until everyone recognises that “If a fiddler played you a song, my love” line. It's still a magical song, as is Morning Glory, a surprising song of anti-sentimentality, demonstrating perhaps a bit more than the simple declarations of love Buckley can be associated with.

On studio recordings, Tim Buckley's voice can seem a little over-produced. Add raspiness and remove the fake-gravitas from the album recording of Pleasant Street, and it's slightly menacing, but rich and honest in a live environment. The guy was what, 21 when he sang this live? 20 when he recorded it? Already with a heck of a body of work behind him and a strange knack for sounding mature in tone and deed? Christ. My highlight of the live album is Buzzin Fly, perhaps a simpler number, a more straightforward song, but Buckley's rich, pleading voice and rhythmic guitar drives the song along as the band flex their muscles. This is more of the traditional love song, but the slight jazz feel to it that belies the path he was taking gives it that extra dimension. Sure, at heart it's a folk-rock song, but it's about as good as folk-rock songs come. Elsewhere, check out the sparse, solo performance of The Earth if Broken, which is so quiet you're straining your ears but it's worth it.

It's his voice, isn't it? That honest sound to every syllable; that's the key that makes me really buy into Tim Buckley. His son's is a little too ostentatious, and maybe that's why I've always felt a little distant and excluded, it's someone showing off rather than consoling with you. Tim Buckley's voice is pretty much empathy and sympathy incarnate. This man, who released nine albums in nine years across a ridiculous array of genres, battled heroin addiction, and eventually drove himself to destruction. He was a fantastic writer of songs, and an addictive live performer from what little I've heard, but the way his voice just pings off the heartstrings...that's how music gets me.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent album. Please do post more blog entries.